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This Is Only A Test: Why Your Cellphone Buzzed Wednesday Afternoon

People with cellphones will receive a message like this one on Wednesday.
People with cellphones will receive a message like this one on Wednesday.

Updated on Wednesday at 4:15 p.m. ET

Wednesday afternoon, at exactly 2:18 p.m. ET, million of Americans received a text headlined "Presidential Alert" on their cellphones.

But it wasn't exactly from President Trump. Rather, it was a test of a new nationwide warning system that a president could use in case of an armed attack by another country, a cyberattack or a widespread natural disaster.

FEMA estimated some 225 million devices, or about 75 percent of cellphone users in the U.S., would receive the alert. It was to be provided by all the major carriers. And sorry, but you can't opt out.

FEMA declared all test messages "were successfully originated and disseminated" to wireless providers. Anecdotally, it seemed to work for many — but not all — cellphone users. FEMA says it will be collecting results of the test message over the next month.

During the Cold War, it was pretty common to see and hear tests of the Emergency Broadcast System.

Things are a little more sophisticated now, but basically the same minute-long, Emergency Alert System test is conducted every month or so on broadcast, cable, and satellite TV and radio. There was one of those Wednesday afternoon too.

But there were also alerts on cellphones nationwide.

Many cellphone users receive alerts now — Amber Alerts for missing children, and flash flood or tornado warnings. But Wednesday was the first time for a national, presidential alert issued by FEMA.

Cellphone owners were to hear an audible tone and then a text that stated: "Presidential Alert" followed by "THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed."

Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, says testing the system "is a good idea," and there are a variety of scenarios where it would be good for the president to speak directly to the public.

But Redlener has some qualms, especially, he says, when it comes to this president — like worrying it could be used for political purposes "or to create a diversion, if he felt the presidency was under threat." Redlener says "these are not powers many Americans would want to give to Donald Trump."

Redlener is not alone. Last week, three people filed suit in New York to block the testing of the system, known as Wireless Emergency Alerts or WEA. The suit states the plaintiffs are Americans "who do not wish to receive text messages of any kind on any topic or subject from President Trump." They say the government is violating their privacy and the sanctity of their homes and that it wants to turn people's cellphones into "government loudspeakers that compel listening."

Their request for an injunction however was rejected by a U.S. District Court judge in New York.

FEMA says that allegation is baseless. In a background briefing for reporters, a senior FEMA official conceded there is no opting out of the alert but said the system is very well-governed. "You would not have a situation where the president would just wake up one morning," as the official put it, "and attempt to send a personal message."

And besides, he has Twitter for that.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.